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Years ago as I began my ministry, I read a book that exercised a huge influence on me: Taylor Branch’s history of the Civil Rights movement (and de facto biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.) Parting the Waters.   When the Ava DuVernay film Selma came out some years ago, I saw it in the theater and again with my wife and son on Netflix some while later.  I have read the words of Dr. King, visited a Civil Rights museum in Atlanta, and done other things to educate myself on this nation’s history of racism, slavery, abolition, Civil Rights.

But recently I spent 8 days in the American South on a ReStory American Pilgrimage sponsored through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and in partnership with The Telos Group out of Washington D.C.   Only now, having had an immersive experience in a trip that went from New Orleans to Montgomery with stops in Jackson, MS, and Selma, Alabama, along the way, only now have I come to an understanding, a new form and level of knowledge that will shape me from here on out.  It is all-but certain that much of what I learned and experienced along with the 29 colleagues on this travel course will show up in any number of future blogs here at The Reformed Journal.  This blog will only scratch the surface.

After I returned last week a colleague who had been on this same travel course before asked me what my favorite part was.  I am not sure if “favorite” is the right word but three of the most viscerally impacting places were re-tracing the footsteps of the Bloody Sunday marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, visiting in Jackson, MS, the home of Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights leader who was murdered in his own car port on the night of June 12, 1963, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL.  One of the leaders of this recent trip called these places—and really so many places where we stopped—“sacred ground,” and that is what it felt like.

Again and for now as I am still processing so many thoughts and emotions, I will not today go into any great detail on anything.  But a few thoughts.

First, I am of course a Calvinist and so have grown up in a biblical-theological tradition that pulls no punches when it comes to the craven nature of totally depraved hearts and souls.  But in the past 2 weeks having prolonged exposure to how much hatred can be instilled in the human heart has been bracing.  To see in the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, pictures of parents who brought their children to witness the lynching of innocent black men brought one’s sense of human sin and corruption to new levels.

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery that is dedicated to the memory of the untold number of black people who were lynched over the years of the 19th century and well into the middle of the 20th century, every county in mostly (but not exclusively) Southern states has a pillar suspended in the air to symbolize so many hangings.  But also on those pillars were the names of and dates when specific people died in that county.  And I could not help but see a date like 1895 for one victim and then farther down the list of that same county another lynching by hanging in 1925 and so I wondered, “Did the little children whose parents brought them to see black bodies swinging from trees grow up into the adults present for a lynching 30 years later?  And did they in turn bring their children?”

In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, one of the phrases Neal Plantinga used to describe the increase of human sin is the Latin phrase series calamatis, a long string of sinful calamity that ricochets down the corridors of history in one long string of decidedly bad momentum.  Racial sin / the original American sin of slavery is a prime example.  And if there is one thing this recent trip also taught me, it is that this level of hatred and rage casts dreadfully long shadows and even if we can point to this or that example of progress when it comes to race relations in America, we cannot underestimate the lasting damage that has been done and how very, very long it will take to recover from it (if in fact we ever fully recover at all).

Yet the shining examples of people like John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., kindle hope.  In Selma our tour guide encouraged us to find a small stone and take it home with us.  She suggested that we keep it in some prominent place where we can see it every day and on those days when we need hope and encouragement in the face of so much that can lead to despair, pick up the stone and squeeze it in your hand.  Remember those who marched for freedom, the Freedom Riders who rode for freedom, the martyrs whose example spurred change.  Remember them and take no small measure of hope from their example.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Bruce Buursma says:

    Thanks for sharing these reflections, Scott. I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last fall. It was a profoundly somber experience to tour the museum’s heart wrenching exhibitions on the grounds where MLK Jr. was gunned down more than a half-century ago. It is shocking to ponder that so many of these horrific crimes against humanity were committed in my lifetime. Lord, have mercy.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thank you for your interest in our national sin of slavery and racism.
    The sinful calamity, the long shadows, and the lasting damage you describe make literal the words of Exodus 20:5. The sins of our fathers have (epigenetically?) been visited upon the third and fourth generations. Despite our desire to love and see all people as children of God, we still harbor prejudices that prevent us from enjoying full communion with our Black and brown brothers and sisters.
    We desperately need greater sensitivity to our own sinful sense of superiority. I trust that your future essays will help us in that regard.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Your sobering blog immediately brought to mind the lyrics from South Pacific, penned the year I was born:
    “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
    It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear – you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
    That is the legacy that continues today. The sins of the fathers visited upon their children because of the worldview of hatred they carry. Unfortuantely, it is in the church as well as our culture. I echo Bruce, Lord have mercy.

  • Jack Reiffer says:

    Wow! Thank you, Scott. Powerful reminders.

  • Lyle Bierma says:

    If only the 2012 CRC synod could have taken such a trip before voting not to adopt the Belhar Confession as a fourth standard of unity and missing a golden opportunity to declare racism in the CRC “a confessional issue.”

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for these precious thoughts. It’s interesting that coming face to face with the places and people of the Civil Rights struggle has such a strong impact, so much stronger than merely reading or hearing about the events and people that suffered at the heart of this struggle. I was still a teenager when MLK was assassinated, and even though I graduated from a highly integrated high school (Battle Creek Central) whose students marched under the Civil Rights banner, the horrible murderous racist events that you described were still only remotely felt in my heart and mind. Lord have mercy. What does this suggest about our responses to today’s ongoing suffering of those who experience murderous racial hatred in India, Gaza, Myanmar, and other places far removed from our personal experience?

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Thanks so much, Scott. Another powerful book on justice delayed over Civil Rights injustices (and there are many) is Jerry Mitchell’s Race Against Time (2020). Medgar Evers, Goodman, Schwerner & Cheney and more, and those who spent decades free before finally going to trial. Quite gripping. .

  • Kenneth W Eriks says:

    Thank you for this blog post, Scott.

    It brought to mind my experience on a Reformed Church in America “Sankofa” coordinated by Earl James, when he was the RCA Coordinator for Racial Inclusion.

    It was a powerful experience, mad more powerful by being paired with Rev. Reggie Smith as my conversation partner. I learned so much from Reggie through his vulnerable sharing.

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